The federal government spent $4.4 billion at the Cold War-era Feed Materials Production Center atomic plant to erase decades of pollution, making the environmentally befouled site so clean it’s now a nature preserve.
Now the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is trying to keep new pollutants out of the site — and out of an important regional drinking-water aquifer — by giving millions of dollars to area landowners in exchange for agreements that their farms and woods will never be developed. But two years into the program, officials say it remains a hard sell in many cases.
“We’re basically paying people to keep doing what they’re doing” with the land along Paddys Run Creek, which runs near the Fernald Preserve and is linked to the Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer, said Ohio EPA spokeswoman Heather Lauer.
“The man who manages (the program for the EPA) said, ‘I never thought it would be that hard to give away millions of dollars.’ ”
EPA officials are renewing their efforts to acquire conservation easements from certain landowners near the old atomic plant near the Butler-Hamilton county line, using money the Energy Department gave the state to settle a federal environmental lawsuit. About 1,850 acres are already under easement, but officials say they have targeted more than double that amount. Under the easements, owners retain rights to own and use the land, sell it or hand it down to heirs, but it can never be developed by present or future owners.
There are many reasons for landowners’ reluctance, Lauer said. Some may want to keep their options open in the event a developer wants to buy their land in the fast-growing Dayton-to-Cincinnati corridor. But Lauer said some of the resistence is based on paranoia about government motives.
“When we had the (public) meetings about this, some of the folks actually used the words ‘black helicopters,’ ” she said.
The man who conceived of the program, however, said he understands why neighbors of the old atomic plant might be skeptical of government plans, no matter how well-intentioned.
At Fernald, “you’ve got a history of, ‘We’re the government and we’re here to screw up your land,’ ” said Larry Frimerman, who is trying to convince owners to sell easements on behalf of the nonprofit Three Valley Conservation Trust. By building the Fernald atomic plant, federal officials “contaminated the water, made people ill and were secretive about it. There’s good, healthy suspicion there (now) in certain ways.”
Nevertheless, Frimerman, a founder of the trust, hopes eligible landowners sell the development rights.
As part of a 2008 legal settlement, the U.S. Department of Energy agreed to pay the state $13.75 million as partial compensation for environmental damage caused to the aquifer by the Fernald plant, which processed and purified uranium metal for nuclear weapons, operating from 1951-1989.
The money is to be used for easements that prevent upstream residential or industrial development along Paddys Run, a tributary of the Great Miami River that runs onto the plant site and is linked to the aquifer. But two years after the program’s launch, officials have spent only about $2 million of the money and have acquired easements for 1,858 acres. Officials say they’d be happy with 3,000 acres, but could acquire development rights to all 4,000 acres in the watershed.
Frimerman said conservationists were concerned that the area would be developed before a plan was in place to protect the water quality.
Many properties have multiple owners
Officials believe owners of as many as 75 properties of 10 acres or more, mostly north of the Fernald Preserve, are eligible to sell the easements. Many of these properties have multiple owners, as many as 17 in one case, Lauer said. The easements are held by Three Valley Conservation Trust, which can inspect the land annually to make sure the no-development agreement is being honored.
The $13.75 million fund has been stretched considerably, officials said, because Three Valley has blended money from the fund with other federal farmland-protection funding to acquire the easements. But that frugality has left the Ohio EPA with a large pot of money it doesn’t want, Lauer said, and officials hope to distribute it all within three to five years.
“We’re going to be out there beating the bushes” to make the remaining easement deals, she said. “The Ohio EPA, we’re not in business to hold money. I kind of look at it as this money belongs to these people, they just haven’t claimed it.”
The easements’ prohibitions on development can limit the sale prospects for the land, Frimerman said. They also can be viewed as a way to protect the rural environment and preserve family farms long into the future. Some who have sold easements have used the money to buy more land and expand their farm businesses, he noted.
The easement decision “depends on what my goals are,” he said. “What are my hopes and dreams for my land? What’s deep in my heart? I would do it because I love my land. It’s just about the only thing you can do in this world that you can control from the grave.”